Innovative Program Serves Growing Hispanic Population
By Michelle A. Bholat, MD andPatrick T. Dowling, MD
The International Medical Graduate (IMG) Program at UCLA is a successful initiative that brings culturally conscious medical care to the underserved Latino community in California.
The program was designed to help numerous Hispanic doctors who attended medical school in Latin or South America prepare for and pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). It is critical for the underserved Hispanic population in California to have doctors who understand their culture and can speak their language.
California’s Hispanic population has boomed over the past decade, and Hispanic residents now represent more than a third of our state’s population. In contrast, only 5.2 percent of California physicians are Hispanic. This disparity only adds to the challenges these immigrants face when they settle in the United States. Hispanics face more barriers to health care than any other group. They are more than twice as likely to be uninsured, and millions live in federally designated medically underserved areas. Once they find a doctor, there are cultural and linguistic barriers. In California alone, about 4.5 million Hispanic residents have limited English proficiency.
We realized that the solution to reducing these barriers was right in our own back yard: Many Hispanic doctors who attended medical school in Latin or South America were living right here in California.
These physicians were not working as doctors because they were not licensed to practice medicine in the United States. In many cases, they immigrated after completing medical school and were working as X-ray technicians, ultrasound technicians, or interpreters at community clinics. It just made sense to help these doctors become licensed so they could provide care to our Hispanic communities.
We recruited program participants through presentations in Hispanic communities, word of mouth, radio shows, and other advocacy tactics. They undergo a rigorous review of basic and clinical sciences before taking the exams. Participants start residency between three and 21 months after entering the IMG Program, depending on their level upon entering. After residency, they are required to spend two to three years working in underserved Hispanic communities, providing care to patients who are facing significant financial and language barriers to care.
We’re happy to report that we have 42 program graduates who are now providing primary care to Hispanic populations at 15 training sites across the state, from inner-city Los Angeles to rural areas in California’s Central Valley. We have an enormous need for primary care doctors in this state, and through the IMG Program, we’re meeting that need faster than many other programs.
Michelle Bholat, MD, MPH, is IMG Program co-founder and executive director. She is professor, and vice chair of UCLA Department of Family Medicine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Dowling, MD, MPH, is IMG Program co-founder and associate director. He is professor, and chair of UCLA Department of Family Medicine. He can be reached at email@example.com.